cover image The Best American Essays 1996

The Best American Essays 1996

Geoffrey C. Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $12.95 (370pp) ISBN 978-0-395-71756-1

This is the sort of collection series editor Robert Atwan undoubtedly had in mind when he started this series 10 years ago: accessible and informative essays that cover everything from history to current events, from nature to pop culture. James Fenton writes that Michelangelo was so paranoid about competition that he ""surrounded himself deliberately with no-hopers""; Adam Gopnik reveals that Queen Victoria's son Leopold wanted to marry the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland; Julie Baumgold notes that Elvis Presley's colon was ""two feet too long, and twisted""; and, according to Gordon Grice, a black widow's web is designed to let its creator discern, at a distance, the difference ""between a raindrop or leaf and viable prey."" Unlike past editions, some themes echo in Ward's choices: Joan Acocella's piece on Willa Cather and Gerald Early's on Afrocentrism both warn of the danger of manipulating facts to suit an agenda, while William Cronon and Jonathan Raban muse on the yuppification of nature. As Cronon puts it, ""celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks"" who never ""had to work the land"" for a living. Meanwhile Raban leaves the comfortable city to freeze his fingers on a winter fly-fishing expedition. The beauty of this collection is that while each essay was created independently, together they create a picture of what's relevant in North America as the 20th century comes to a close. As a collection, they more than live up to the superlative in the title. (Nov.)